With the roller coaster year that 2021 has been, leave it to Marvel to be the ones commanding the box office through all the turbulence. If the mighty studio hadn’t already been on top of the world before with their record breaking success with the Avengers, 2021 would be a banner year for them regardless. They started off with their big launch of their Disney+ programming all the way back in January with Wandavision, a highly acclaimed mini-series focused on the characters Scarlett Witch and The Vision. Then came even more successful series like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Loki to tide us over into the summer season. As big a deal as these shows were, the industry was far more interested in seeing how Marvel would fare at the box office. Movie theaters were slowly coming back to life after a year long pandemic forced closure in 2020. Though Marvel’s parent studio Disney started by hedging their bets going back into the theater market with a hybrid theatrical/streaming release, they nevertheless set out to bring their big screen pictures back to the big screen. The pandemic delayed Black Widow (2021) was first, and even with the hybrid release it still managed to scrounge up an $80 million opening weekend. It also saw the biggest second weekend drop of any Marvel movie, and it’s final gross end up on the low end of the MCU, but it still showed that the Marvel brand still had enough mojo to liven up the decimated pandemic box office. This led to their next film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) getting a theatrical only release to see if that led to a better result. And even while the Delta variant of Covid was flaring up, Shang-Chi managed to not only succeed, but also flourish beyond opening weekend; leading to it’s current status as the box office champ of the year. However, that didn’t help Eternals (2021), their third film, which to many underperformed. But, it should be noted that Eternals didn’t fade quickly as many expected, and has actually accumulated a healthy box office that while low for Marvel it’s still impressive for a film in the pandemic era. Now, at the end of a busy year for Marvel, which has included all the properties from last year as well as this one, they are bringing us the next installment of one of their marquee franchises, Spider-Man, in the hopes that it not only ends the year on a strong note for them, but also hopefully brings the box office back even more strong than before.
While Spider-Man has always been a hot property for Marvel, it’s interesting that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hasn’t rested all their success solely on his shoulders. If anything, in the grand narrative of the shared universe that the MCU has been, Spider-Man has thus far been a fairly secondary character. That would’ve been unheard of before the launch of the MCU, but Marvel chose to Avengers be the driving force of their connective thread, and Spider-Man was not an original part of that team. Since then, he has come into his own, taking more of a central role, but in the grand scheme of things, he’s still second tier to the likes of Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. But, after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), several new possibilities have opened up for the character. The best part thus far of Spider-Man’s development in the MCU is seeing how this hero we are all familiar with interacts within a world where what he does is not as extraordinary as we’ve seen before. He exists in a world full of super heroes, so the dynamic is very different. As a result, the MCU has been able to focus on their Spider-Man being a naïve but eager kid, much like he is in the comics. One of the best character dynamics of the MCU that has resulted from that was the mentor/apprentice relationship that he had built up with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. This became a central part of the story going into the final chapter of the Infinity Saga with Infinity War and Endgame, and with Iron Man’s departure, it has taken the Spider-Man character into a whole different path than we’ve seen before. Of course, a Spider-Man movie where the hero has suffered a heart-breaking loss is nothing new, but when he is now expected to fill in a vacancy within that same dynamic, it has opened up a new layer of character that we haven’t really explored with Spider-Man just yet. In fact, everything with this MCU iteration has felt fresh, especially in his own franchise of films. In what has been dubbed the Spider-Man “Home” trilogy, we have seen the character grow on his own, through the trials of high school life in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) to the dilemmas of a post-Endgame world in Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). Now, the trilogy comes to a climax of it’s own with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and the question is, does it bring Spider-Man’s story together in a satisfying way, or is it caught in a web of it’s own problems?
One thing I definitely have to say before hand is that so much of this movie is filled with plot elements that I don’t want to spoil. So, before I go into a plot summery, let me just state that what I’m going to write forward in this paragraph and review after is solely in line with what’s already been revealed in the movie trailers thus far. So, spoiler free, let’s talk about what happens. Picking up literally right where Far From Home left off, Spider-Man’s secret identity has been leaked to the public thanks to internet provocateur J. Jonah Jameson (J.K. Simmons). Now, everyone in the world knows that Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is really Spider-Man. This suddenly thrusts him and those close to him into the spotlight, including his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), his girlfriend M.J. Watson (Zendaya) and his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon). Life is no longer the same for them, and it comes to a brutal head when the revelation about Spider-Man’s identity excludes him from college admittance to his desired school, which also happens to M.J. and Ned. After this crushing disappointment, Peter seeks out help from another Avenger ally, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he believes can turn back time in order to help erase his identity being revealed. Since Strange no longer has the Time Stone, he can’t help Peter by reversing time, but he believes he knows another way to help him instead. Strange begins a Forgetting Spell to erase Peter Parker’s identity from everyone’s memory, but Peter realizes that doing so will make even those close to him forget. Unfortunately, this botches the spell, so Peter is out of luck again. He tries to think of his next move, but that is interrupted when new enemies begin to emerge. They are powerful foes who have faced Spider-Man before, but not the Spider-Man of this universe. They include Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and Norman Osborne, aka the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe). Doctor Strange reveals that the broken spell opened up a rip in the multiverse, and if they don’t return these multiversal tresspassers back to their own universes, it could lead to a collapse of reality as we know it. So, Spider-Man must set things right, but he soon encounters a different dilemma; is it right to send these villains back to their fate where their destiny is to die fighting Spider-Man?
There’s definitely a lot to unpack with Spider-Man: No Way Home. Not only is it continuing the story that’s already been told thus far in the MCU Spider-Man films, but it’s also incorporating elements from previously existing Spider-Man franchises. We are seeing pretty much every major villain Spider-Man has faced on the big screen over the last 20 years. Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Thomas Hayden Church return to play Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Sandman respectively from the Sam Raimi directed / Tobey Maguire starring Spider-Man films of the 2000’s. And then there are Jamie Foxx and Rhys Ifans also playing Electro and The Lizard from the short-lived Amazing Spider-Man reboot directed by Marc Webb and starring Andrew Garfield. That’s a lot to pack into a single film, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg without going into spoilers. Which makes me all the more amazed by how well this movie manages to bring everything together in the end. This movie is just a remarkable achievement in logistics alone. How they managed to pull all these multiversal things together and not loose sight of the central narrative thread is truly amazing. There are some big revelations in this movie that I’m sure are going to be the stuff of movie legend in the years to come, but I think where the movie excels the most is in how well it stays focused on Spider-Man’s story. This is still a movie that falls in line with the plot thread spread across the rest of the “Home” trilogy as well as with all the MCU movies that Spider-Man has been a part of, and it helps to give this movie a surprising amount of emotional weight. In particular, I think this movie does an especially great job of fleshing out what it means to be Spider-Man. What we’ve seen throughout the MCU movies is that the universe is far more complex than the black and white morality of good vs. evil. We’ve seen villains like Killmonger from Black Panther and Thanos portrayed with layers of character that show they aren’t just evil for the sake of being evil. And we’ve also seen heroes in the MCU commit some very evil acts like Iron Man creating Ultron, or Scarlet Witch holding a town captive within her fantasy world in Wandavision. That same depth of examination is also brought beautifully into No Way Home, and it helps to re-contextualize all the Spider-Man films as a whole in a surprising way.
One of the things that is going to easily blow people away is seeing all the different characters from all the different Spider-Man films together. But, to the movie’s credit, it doesn’t just plop these characters in for the sake of nostalgia alone. Each and every one of them has a purpose in the story, and none are wasted. I actually want to say, without going too much into spoilers, that the most refreshing thing about this movie is that it holds back and doesn’t try to do too much. It would have been very tempting to just throw all the doors open of the Multiverse and bring in a whole lot more into this movie. But, director Jon Watts and producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal wisely decided not to. They give us just enough multiverse treats to satisfy what we’d hope be in this movie and don’t go overboard. Had they done too much, it might have overwhelmed the story to a point of breaking. There are some points where that is the case, and it’s the only flaw that the movie has. The movie is the longest of any Spider-Man film at 2 1/2 hours, but it doesn’t feel like that at all except for a select number of scenes. And those scenes are where the characters basically stop the movie to go through a “previously on” recap of their backstory, so that the audience that hasn’t been up to speed can be caught up. It’s the most awkward part of the script, and I see why the filmmakers felt that they needed to include it, but I also felt like they were the only parts of the movie that started to take me out of the film. Credit to the actors for selling that clumsy exposition as well as they can. There’s an especially funny exchange where Electro and Sandman compare their origins like they are casually trading battle scar stories. Apart from that nitpick, the movie surprisingly has a sound flow to it and manages the tone perfectly. And given all the building blocks they had to work with, that’s really something remarkable.
It’s suffice to say that the movie’s biggest asset is the stellar cast, both with the central players as well as all the legacy characters carried over from other franchises. Most importantly, it continues to put Tom Holland’s Spider-Man front and center, and helps to build upon the character development that we’ve seen with him up to now. In many ways, this is Holland’s best performance thus far as Spider-Man. He goes through the gamut of emotions in this movie, managing to perfectly balance the goofy playfulness of Spider-Man’s lighter moments with the hard pathos of the movie’s more tragic scenes. And seeing him interact with all these legacy characters is also quite an interesting new avenue to take this character. Of course, the big deal with this movie is all of these legendary characters returning to the big screen, and with all the original actors making the return as well. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock hasn’t appeared on screen since Spider-Man 2 (2004), which was 17 years ago. That film is considered by many to be one of the greatest super hero films of all time, and Molina’s iconic performance was one of the reasons for that. So not only is it a pleasure to see him in the role again, but he doesn’t waste the opportunity either, slipping right back in effortlessly. Jamie Foxx, who was kind of shortchanged in the disastrous The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) gets to redeem himself here with a version of Electro that feels truer to the comic book and gives Foxx more to chew on as an actor. Naturally, he’s the character most improved upon in this film. Thomas Hayden Church and Rhys Ifans have less to do than the rest of the cast, but are no less a welcome presence in the movie as their respective characters But if anyone steals the movie the most, it’s Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin. Somehow, he managed to find a way to make the character even more menacing since his debut almost 20 years ago. His performance here is really remarkable and probably the highlight of a movie already full of iconic moments. The fights he has with Spider-Man are especially brutal and carry a lot more weight than we’ve seen from other films in the series. In addition to the great return of the iconic villains, I’m especially happy to see that characters like M.J., Aunt May, and Ned don’t get lost in all the shuffle, and their respective actors all contribute something special to the movie as a whole. If anyone is short-changed, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, since he actually has less screen time than the trailers would have you believe. He’s not terribly used, but if you’re looking for a Spider-Man/Doctor Strange team-up in this movie, it ain’t there in the way you’d expect. Still, overall, audiences are going to go wild for the cast of charcters I described here, and of course, there might be surprises as well.
Given the enormity of what the movie has to accomplish, even in an expansive 2 1/2 runtime, it’s amazing that the film flows as well as it does. Director Jon Watts certainly deserves that credit. His work on the Spider-Man franchise has really been the most consistent that we’ve ever seen for the character. It probably helps that he had the guidance and support of a producer like Kevin Feige whose expertise has been to manage multiple franchise on a scale unseen before. For the Raimi and Webb films, they often fell victim to studio interference negating the vision of the director, and resulted in films like Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 that were unfocused messes. No Way Home feels so certain about what it is and it’s in line with the story that has been told over not just Spider-Man’s own films, but also those in the MCU as a whole. At the same time, Watts certainly knows that this is the movie that has to go bigger than anything we’ve seen before. Many are comparing this to Avengers: Endgame in many ways, and some of that comparison is warranted. This movie feels like the culmination of so much of the Spider-Man mythos built up not just within the MCU but also with all Spider-Man media. At the same time, like what I previously stated before, this movie knows when to hold back as well, giving us enough to digest while not spoiling the whole meal. I think that’s why the movie holds together in the end when it could’ve easily fallen apart. That’s evident in the final confrontation that takes place at the Statue of Liberty (not a spoiler because part of it is shown in the trailer). Director Webb manages to keep the action in that scene focused and consistent, so no one in the audience is likely to be confused by what’s happening. I also want to note the incredible themes set forth by the movie, especially that one about the gray areas of morality that have been present in the MCU. What I like most about this movie is that it brings to the forefront what drives Spider-Man to be a hero. And that moral is that a hero strives to help save everyone, even the worst among us. In this movie, that will to do the right thing gets tested and I love how the movies centers it’s story around that theme. Those immortal words written by the late great Stan Lee all those years ago, “With great power comes great responsibility,” takes on a more important meaning in this film, and that in essence, helps to elevate this movie to a far more lofty place than I think most of us would’ve ever expected.
It’s hard to say just yet where I would rank this movie among all the Spider-Man films. I definitely think it’s the best of the “Home” trilogy of Spider-Man movies, but the bar is still high that has been set by Spider-Man 2 and the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (2018). It may take a few more viewings to properly place this film in the pantheon of all the Spider-Man movies. Honestly, the thing that impresses me the most is just how they managed to pull off what they did. I’ve been very careful to not spoil some of the movie’s biggest surprises, but let me just say that the packed house IMAX showing that I saw this movie in had some of the loudest audience cheering that I have ever witnessed. And this was the same IMAX theater I saw Avengers: Endgame in, so that really is saying something. All that said, there are still something flaws in the plot and mostly in the dialogue that holds this movie slightly back from that level of greatness, and I hope they become less noticeable the more times I see this movie. This movie really had an almost impossible task, and I felt that this was the best case result we could’ve hoped for. For one thing, I think it does a great service to the legacy of all the Spider-Man films of the past, especially with regards to the much maligned Amazing Spider-Man films. It’s great to see the actors who played these iconic roles from the past slip right back into character and not only deliver the good once again, but also find new avenues to explore. And I’m also really impressed with the fact that the movie isn’t afraid to take some risks as well and doesn’t just wrap up Spider-Man’s story in a nice happy resolution. Like many of the MCU films to date, the characters carry on the scars of their ordeal, and this especially is true with the MCU’s Spider-Man, who I am definitely intrigued to see where they take him next. Without saying what happens, I’ll tell you that I especially found the ending of this movie to be a surprise and quite a ballsy move on Marvel’s part. It shows that they recognize the significance of Spider-Man as a character not just on his own but as a part of a larger world, and they are determined to give him a story that carries a lot of weight with it. Suffice to say, this is going to be another blockbuster for Marvel. I know the lingering effects of the pandemic are still making things weary for some movie-goers, but if there is any film that you’ve been willing to take the chance on, this would be the one. It’s a movie that demands to be seen with a large audience. It’s certainly the best in theater experience that I’ve had all year, and it’s something that I though I’d never see again after the pandemic decimated the theatrical market all of last year. Leave it to the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man to bring some much needed life back to the box office again. This is definitely one of the webslinger’s finest hours, and a movie whose very existence is likely going to stand as a ground-breaking moment in the super hero genre as a whole.